Pummeled by rising freight transportation costs, US shippers are turning to technology not only to track freight in motion but to help them find available trucks or even create capacity when needed. The technology exists to build such solutions, but is it actually available today?
“It is so challenging to find a platform that takes into account all parts of the supply chain,” Laura Venchuk, corporate logistics manager at Kuriyama of America, told JOC.com. “What happens at the ports, what happens at customs, at the dray, at LTL [less-than-truckload], there are so many [variables].”
Her company, a Schaumburg, Illinois-based manufacturer of industrial hoses, has been looking for a system to track goods across modes, step by step, “and I question whether it can really be developed,” she said. “In the meantime, you have to make do. You’re stuck piecemealing.”
Technologically, putting those pieces together is possible, though true, end-to-end solutions may not be available to every shipper, especially smaller ones. But companies, logistics and technology firms, are racing to solve the visibility problem. One of them, project44, just received $35 million to speed development of software linking global and surface freight networks.
“A year ago there was still a lot of dissension about whether change was needed,” Tommy Barnes, president of project44, said. “Now I believe that most shippers and even more so, third-party companies, recognize the need to change to stay competitive or potentially die.”
Founded in 2014, project44 set out to replace electronic data interchange with application programming interfaces (APIs) connecting transportation systems in the LTL market in real time. Expansion into volume LTL, truckload, and rail markets followed.
The $35-million investment, which follows $10.5 million in Series A funding in 2016, will help project44 roll out its ocean and air-freight forwarding APIs “in the coming quarters,” Barnes said. “We’ve been focused on APIs that have the right quality attributes, not just points on the map.”
In other words, project44 is looking at the connectivity and data flow needed to track containers and shipments as they clear ports, not just cross oceans. “In ocean shipping today, where do most of the delays occur? At the port. A lot of times we don’t focus enough on the port itself.”
Along with GE Transportation, project44 is piloting an information portal at the Port of Los Angeles for carriers, terminal operators, beneficial cargo owners, truckers, cargo intermediaries, equipment providers, and railroads. The idea is to eliminate all the gaps in visibility at the port.
“At GE, they use the word ‘stitching’ a lot,” Barnes said. Each step of the container’s multimodal journey “has to be stitched together to create visibility. You’re creating a single integration layer for all that activity.” And project44 will provide the APIs that hold that “layer” together.
Technology that will eventually optimize supply chains, not just truck routes
Building integrated platforms that connect modal silos will spur not just optimization of truck routes or trade lanes but supply chains. With larger vessels calling at ports and truck capacity tightening, there has never been a time that optimization, and visibility, were more needed.
“We don’t know how to fix things unless we can see them,” Mark Carroll, director of product strategy at Descartes MacroPoint, another visibility technology supplier, told JOC.com. “It’s no longer a question of if people will deploy visibility but how people will deploy systems.”
Descartes MacroPoint is developing a service based on its tracking technology that will help shippers not just follow freight but find capacity. “We are using some of our data now to begin matching up capacity for people as they continuously move trucks,” Carroll said.
The capacity-matching product is in beta tests with several customers, he said, and should be ready to roll out late in the second quarter or early third quarter. “In the near term, we’re playing in the capacity-matching space, and beyond that we’ll be a complete visibility solution,” he said.
Like project44 and competitor FourKites, Descartes MacroPoint offers a multimodal view of supply chains. “Our core focus is certainly trucking, but we do offer intermodal tracking through an aggregator and we are introducing steamship [container tracking] as well,” Carroll said.
He also sees visibility as a prerequisite to further advances in technology that will not just make current shipping processes more efficient, but lead to changes in those processes. As supply chain technologies begin to merge, a broader level of supply chain visibility will emerge.
“End-to-end tracking is the biggest thing people are focused on, but there are other cool things happening” with visibility, Carroll said. “Document tracking is part of that. There are some really good products coming out that will help manage payments” by expediting documents.
Such advances will help shippers scale “visibility” into their supply chains, from the 30,000-foot-view of inventory in motion across continents and oceans to the ground level tactical perspective of a pallet in a tractor-trailer moving down the highway.